When Focus Groups Failed

Focus groups, consultants and data are  key to marketing success and no one will deny that but there are some things of the heart and mind that all the data mining and research will not tell you. That’s a fact sometimes over-looked in some business sectors and radio is a prime example. The importance of radio to people’s lives has diminished but I think things could be different.

My very favorite format in radio was the short-lived progressive free form rock radio stations which could be found in almost every radio market by 1969. The format did not last long but it won over a lot of hearts and minds and had a loyal following. The format first took off at KMPX FM in San Francisco in 1967. The start of the format coincided with the ascendance of the long playing LP as a major attraction for rock music fans who were evolving from the short form 45 RPM discs and top 40 radio. Rock was maturing as the album became an art form. The Beatles got the ball rolling with the Rubber Soul album released in 1965 and with the release of their Sgt. Peppers album in 1967 the rock album as a statement and full listening experience was solidified. The hyper active and fast paced top 40 rock format was not necessarily the best vehicle to showcase albums and into the void appeared KMPK. The youth culture was in ascendance and it was maturing.

There had been a few earlier experiments in expanding the rock playlists beyond the top 40 hits of the day. WOR FM in New York being one but KMPX was the real deal  where  DJ’s began programming long sets of album cuts interspersed with hip chatter, spoken word poems, comedy and more. The music play list was huge and though the rock genre was the prime focus you could also hear folk, Jazz, classical and early world music. Ravi Shankar for example.  Rock itself was expanding and groups such as the Buffalo Springfield and of course the Beatles  were exploring various genres of music within the space of one album. The possibilities seemed limitless and there was a willing audience ready to accept the diversity.

Tom Donahue the DJ and founder of KMPX went on to KSAN FM in San Francisco and also established a station in Los Angles. The format mushroomed and soon you had free form stations in every major North American city. CHUM FM in Toronto switched from classical to progressive rock during the summer of 1968. I become hooked on that station sometime late in 1970 when I was blown a away with what I heard on Reiner Schwarz’s show listening at night in the dark. He blended the Moody Blues’ “legend of a mind” with a track from a spoken word album and his own voice and it was like entering a magical world. That was it was It, I was ready to leave the world of teen orientated top 40 radio and move on to more interesting explorations in music and communication.

CHUM FM at this time was the best commercial radio that I have ever heard, they had a stellar staff such as the a fore mentioned Reiner Schwarz and also David Pritchard, Tim Thomas, Walter Michaels, Pete Griffen and Larry Green. The legendary David Marsden with his brown paper bag joined the staff a bit later. The entire on-air staff were fans  and they knew the music and you could hear their passion . This was more than just a job.

Sadly the format in Toronto and elsewhere was not to last and by 1975 it was morphing into album rock which was much more narrow in mission and presentation. Many make the case that radio is a business and it has to change in order to sustain itself and by narrowing the format, the audience and the advertising revenue grew and so happy capitalism. That may be true but it ignores the fact that the free form format was actually very successful and had a loyal listener-ship that advertisers could and should have tapped into because of this fierce loyalty. No one did and so we entered the focus group driven days of rock radio and the end of diversity. No more segueing from Beethoven to The Beatles or Miles Davis to Bob Dylan. The format fostered open minds and today’s radio fosters dull conformity.

I have some tapes from the waning days of the format which I present to you hear so you can get a taste of what the format was like.

First up is David Pritchard from the summer of 1975. He had already left the experimental all night shift where the avant garde ruled. He must have been told to tighten things up so he moved to a day time slot with a more conventional show but you can still hear some of the eclecticism on this air check. He did the best he could and Instead of Tchaikovsky you get Tomita but it still made for some great listening.

The musical selection is varied. Quebecois content, the Italian progressive rock group PFM, Manhattan Transfer. A Chicago track which I think was placed there as hit content policy was probably already underway. Some ads including one that mentions Mastercharge and ChargeEx, Pete and Geets are heard on one ad and Brian Master on a few.. The time capsule aspect is highlighted with a full newscast with Larry Wilson including reports from Brian Thomas and Fred Ennis.

Enjoy this clip from my personal collection.

Stay tuned for more real audio examples of the free form format from stations Toronto and Buffalo NY outlets such as WBUF, CFNY, WZIR and WUWU coming soon and of course CHUM FM.



3 thoughts on “When Focus Groups Failed”

  1. This is interesting. I didn’t start listening to CHUM FM until after 1975 but I know lots of these people. Radio isn’t the same anymore. All stations sound the same or close to it and there are fewer announcers with lots of automation.

  2. This really takes me back. Miss those good old days when radio reigned supreme. My mornings started with a smile, listening to Pete and Geets.

  3. These are great memories. Thank you for posting them. These were the days when radio was actually listenable (both music and on-air “talent”), and that was a long time ago.

    It’s great to have a DJ who speaks intelligently and doesn’t SHOUT AT YOU and try to be (un)funny.

    Only thing that’s the same? The commercials are just as irritating!

    Thank you, Javed. Please post more.

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